Black Pastors Challenge the Silence Surrounding Botham Jean’s Death in Dallas

On the night of Sept. 6, in an upscale Dallas apartment building, a young accountant named Botham Shem Jean, who was black, poured himself a bowl of cereal and settled in to watch a football game. At around 10 p.m. Amber Guyger, a white police officer, burst into his apartment and shot Jean to death. She then called 911.

These facts have not been disputed. Almost everything else has been.

Amid international attention, Dallas has become embroiled in its own “O.J. moment,” a time when blacks and whites see justice in such starkly opposing ways that conversation seems pointless. City leaders have long worried that with the right provocation Dallas could become another Ferguson, the Missouri town where violence broke out after Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American man, was killed by police. Community leaders fear the Amber Guyger case will be that provocation.

“If the grand jury doesn’t come back with (a charge of) murder, we may have riots,” says Jeff Warren, senior pastor of mostly white Park Cities Baptist.

The African-American community is “boiling in outrage,” adds George Mason, senior pastor of mostly white Wilshire Baptist Church.

But within these dire warnings, delivered by these particular white men, is a pinprick of light. Dallas’ black Christians have taught a growing number of the city’s white Christians what they experience, what it is to be daily riven by ancient suffering and at the same time mended minute by minute by a God who can create precisely what despair demands: peace and justice.

Tributaries of anger

The deep anger in Dallas’ African-American community is fed by the past and the present. The city is last in “overall inclusion” of minorities, according to a recent Urban Institute Study of 274 cities with populations of more than 100,000.

There is both insult…

A monument to Civil War heroes still stands near city hall. It bears a giant “C.S.A.” monogram and is guarded by life-sized statues of the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis and his generals, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston. The Dallas school district voted only last year to re-name four schools named after Civil War soldiers: Lee, Jackson, Johnston and John H. Reagan, an American Congressman and postmaster general of the Confederacy. Some of the city’s most prominent streets – Gaston, Ervay and Lemmon – are among those named for Confederates.

…and injury.

Dallas is two cities, says Warren. To the north it’s white and affluent. The church he leads, Park Cities Baptist, draws most its members from that sector. To the south, Dallas is black and economically challenged. Diners who sit at Dallas’ landmark revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency tower can see those two cities defined starkly. “It’s like North and South Korea,” said one African-American woman. “As the place you’re sitting revolves to the north, you see all those lights spread out across the land. Then it revolves to the other side (with) no lights. Nothing. Just dark.”

Nevertheless, African-American influence is growing. Dallas has a large number of African-American judges. Its district attorney and police chief are African-American women.

Just a week before Botham Jean was shot to death, a white police officer who fired a rifle into a car of teenagers, killing a 15-year-old African-American boy, was convicted of murder by a Dallas county jury and sentenced to 15 years. He’d claimed that he was protecting a fellow officer who was in danger of being run down. But the second officer testified he had been in no danger. It had been 40 years since a Dallas cop had been convicted of killing a citizen. For most black activists, it was such a major win that one leader said she hardly knew what to do next.

Then Amber Guyger stepped into an apartment that wasn’t hers.

Confusion, controversy and division

News media accounts of the killing are generally in agreement about the basic elements of the story. On the night of Sept. 6, after working a 15-hour shift, Guyger said she mistakenly parked on the fourth floor of her Southside Dallas apartment building instead of the third floor where her apartment was located. The 30-year-old officer gathered an armload of items from her car and went to what she believed was her apartment. Jean had a red welcome mat outside his door, but Guyger has reported that the items in her arms blocked her from being able to see the mat, which would have signaled that she was at the wrong door. The door was not latched.

Entering a dark room, Guyger reported that she saw the silhouette of a man. Believing him to be a burglar, she said, she dropped the items she was carrying and shouted commands to Jean, which he did not obey. She shot him twice. She then realized she was not in her own apartment and called 911, sobbing.

To some, perhaps especially white people in Dallas and elsewhere, the incident seemed an unfortunate accident, a tragedy all round. That may be because white people generally see law enforcement as peace officers, who risk their lives to protect citizens and ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.

But the Guyger story looked radically different to a large number of African-Americans. To them, this latest killing-by-cop showed that black men weren’t safe from police violence even in their own homes. To them, Guyger’s actions weren’t exceptional, they were merely the latest in a long list of unwarranted killings by police – licensed, armed vigilantes who regularly foment racism and violence against people of color.

As Dallas pastor Frederick Haynes puts it, white communities are policed and protected, while other communities, especially minority communities, are policed and preyed upon.

There seemed plenty to doubt about Guyger’s account. Many Dallas citizens – white and black – were shaking their heads, saying, “Something seems fishy.” Stories circulated about people in apartments nearby hearing a woman banging on the door, demanding to be let in. How could Guyger have failed to see the bright red mat that marked Jean’s door as not hers, some asked. Other residents claimed that the apartment door couldn’t have been left open accidentally because the doors close and latch automatically. Jean’s mother said her son didn’t like the dark and never would have been sitting in a dark room.

Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist, a mostly African-American megachurch, minced no words during a protest 10 days after the fatal shooting. He referred to Guyger as “that lying officer.” Guyger had been charged with manslaughter. Haynes wanted her charged with murder. The city’s police chief had put Guyger on leave. The protestors wanted the officer fired immediately.

Perhaps most egregiously, on the very day of Jean’s funeral where the 26-year-old was lauded as an extraordinary employee, a dedicated church member and a person with a smile for everybody, police released a list of the dead man’s apartment’s contents. Media accounts noted that among them was a cache of marijuana.

Haynes demanded an apology from the media for mentioning the marijuana, which he would only refer to as the “item.” Including that detail without anyone knowing whether the bag even belonged to Jean was seen by many as character assassination of a dead man, the kind of treatment African-Americans have so often been subject to. “Even though we’re the victim, it seems like we gotta prove that we deserve to be the victim,” said Bryan Carter, pastor of Concord Church.

Haynes and other leaders called on the police department to investigate the policies and procedures that led to such killings. Had they searched Guyger’s apartment? She was the perpetrator. Instead, they searched the victim’s dwelling?

Four days after Jean was killed, two dozen black pastors held a press conference outside police headquarters. For many, Guyger was already receiving the kind of special treatment that keeps police officers from being accountable for their actions in the way other citizens might be. She had been given 72 hours before being arrested, which is standard for Dallas police officers accused of crimes. Three days had given her time to be coached, to rehearse her story and to consider evidence that might counter her story, said critics. In a similar situation, a black person would have been arrested on the spot, African-Americans contended.

Not one white Christian pastor was among the ministers at the press conference, which was hardly surprising. Dallas’ white Christian leaders seemed to be running true to historical form during racial conflict: staying silent, doing nothing, playing it safe.

This case was murkier than some other cases of police mistreatment of African-Americans in past years. This was not a white police officer slamming a slightly built teen girl onto the ground and straddling her, as had happened in a nearby suburb. This was not a cop harassing a man trying to get into his own truck and then shooting him as he ran away begging not to be shot, as had happened in Fort Worth.

Those were easy calls compared to this one. It was this one, however, that would demand that some of the city’s most influential white pastors take a public stand with their African-American brothers and sisters. Some may have wished this particular cup would pass from them. But a sizeable group of white and black pastors had become friends. And friends stick together, especially when there’s trouble. Don’t they?

Interracial friendships among pastors

The growth in interracial friendships among Dallas pastors seems to have begun in 2011, not long after Warren became senior pastor at Park Cities Baptist. He began to think about Park Cities not just as a church, but as The Church, a citywide gathering of Christians that reached across racial lines. A friend suggested that Concord Church and Park Cities, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, were much alike.

Warren, who had long been interested in racial justice issues, called Carter, Concord’s pastor, and they met for lunch. They liked each other and decided to be intentional about carving time out of their busy schedules for other lunch conversations. In 2014, when Ferguson erupted into weeks of violence, Warren and Carter asked, “What would happen if Ferguson happened in Dallas? What would we do?” They realized that black and white Christians would be helpless to mediate because they hardly knew each other.

Convinced that “gospel moves at the speed of relationship,” Warren began devoting 10 percent of his time to fostering interracial friendships. Other pastors did too. The idea was that the pastors would work with their own churches but also with the larger community, says Vincent Parker, lead pastor at Golden Gate Missionary Baptist Church. “We can be conduits for healing beyond just a particular church.”

As the years went on, four loosely organized coalitions of black and white pastors formed. They and their congregations began sharing meals and working together on projects. Women from Concord joined in a book club with women from Park Cities.

Men from various churches began sharing Saturday morning breakfasts at which they would ask each other, “What’s your race story? How did your parents talk about race?” The black Christians didn’t have much to learn about race from the whites. As St. Paul United Methodist pastor Richie Butler, who graduated from Southern Methodist University and did his graduate work at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it, “I know how to flow in a white man’s world. I can do him better than he can.”

We all have racism in us, says Butler. “You have to treat racism like you do a chronic illness. You take medication so it does not overtake you. That’s a pragmatic approach.” The African-American Christians were patient and truthful explaining what their lives were like, says George Mason, Wilshire’s senior pastor. And white attitudes began to shift.

At Park Cities, Warren began talking to his congregation about why blacks and whites reacted differently to news stories. He linked the difference to systemic racism tracing it “all the way back to the first slaves to Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights era.” When the movie “Selma” came out, Warren took his staff to see it.

“Our people were blown away,” he says.

Friendships tested by violence

On July 7, 2016, the pastors’ friendships had their first real test of unity. That summer, as police departments began to employ dashboard cameras and bystanders shot videos, scenes of police violence against African-Americans seemed everywhere.

Two days earlier, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an African-American man, Alton Sterling, had been shot to death while pinned to the ground by police. One day later, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a black motorist, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. On July 7, approximately 800 people participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas to protest police violence. The 100 officers patrolling the event weren’t wearing tactical gear or carrying heavy weapons. Their interaction with the crowd was purposely low-key and friendly.

Suddenly, shots rang out. As a sniper began firing, the panicked crowd scattered, unsure where the shots were coming from. As citizens fled, police moved toward the gunfire. One of the most publicized scenes of the massacre came as a white policeman shielded an African-American woman and her son from the gunfire by putting his body over theirs.

Five law enforcement officers were killed; seven other officers and two civilians were wounded in the attack. The gunman, who was black, was a military veteran who had served in Afghanistan. As the horror unfolded on live television, the city was transfixed and afraid. Officers locked down the downtown area, confining residents to their apartments as police searched for explosives.

The next day, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who is white, called Warren to ask that pastors hold a service for peace and healing. Warren called white pastors. Carter called African-American pastors.

Meanwhile, a few hundred people gathered at Thanksgiving Square downtown as Carter faced the cameras. “We refuse to hate each other,” he said. “We refuse to point fingers at one another…We refuse to not love our brothers and sisters.” Standing beside him was Warren.

The following night 2,000 people, among them 100 pastors, gathered at Concord Church for another prayer meeting. Warren was there to confess how he had benefitted from white privilege and to call on other whites to use their privilege as a lever for racial justice. Another white pastor, Todd Wagner of megachurch Watermark Community Church, confessed that he hadn’t understood why Black Lives Matter mattered until a young African-American explained it to him.

The next Sunday, pastor Joseph Clifford of First Presbyterian would tell his congregation that the meeting was one of the most powerful experiences in his life. “I was convicted of my own sin,” he said. “There is so much that keeps us from loving one another.”

The city remained tense that week and into the next as funerals began to be held. Signs proclaiming “Back the Blue” sprung up all over town. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called the protestors who ran from the bullets “hypocrites.” White supremacists were blowing up the Internet with hateful rhetoric and threats of violence. At the same time, some blacks criticized the African-American police chief for sending a robot armed with explosives to kill the sniper instead of negotiating his surrender more aggressively.

But many Dallas citizens, African-American and white, joined the law enforcement community and city leaders in mourning, contributing flowers and messages to an enormous display honoring the fallen at police headquarters. At Potter’s House, a 30,000-member, mostly African-American church led by T.D. Jakes, huge photos of the murdered officers graced the dais during a service in which they were lauded.

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Source: Baptist News